Government & Politics

Starbucks founder, unfazed by brickbats, pitches Kansans on independent presidential bid

Is America ready for a centrist independent president? Howard Schultz thinks so

To help kick off his ``Heart of America'' tour, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, held a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at Johnson County Community College. Schultz has yet to declare his intentions about running for president.
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To help kick off his ``Heart of America'' tour, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, held a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at Johnson County Community College. Schultz has yet to declare his intentions about running for president.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has gained a fair share of attention—and blistering criticism—since floating the idea of an independent presidential candidacy earlier this year.

Many Democrats saw the Brooklyn-born billionaire as another entitled executive, better off in Davos than playing a potential spoiler who could return the White House to President Donald Trump in 2020.

But Schultz, 65, who started his bus tour of middle America in Johnson County Tuesday afternoon, said he remains unfazed.

“We expected what was going to come,” he said, sipping a Doubleshot Espresso as his private bus, tricked out with leather seats and plasma screens, headed west on I-70 toward Lawrence and the University of Kansas.

“I also think it’s a false narrative what they’re saying about I’m going to be a spoiler. Not true. Lifelong Republicans are going to be very interested in what I have to say on one issue alone -- and that is character. Lifelong republicans will not vote for a Democrat, especially one that represents socialist values.”

One other point:

“I’ve never been to Davos, just for the record.”

Although he hasn’t formally announced his candidacy (he plans to make a decision over the summer), that’s not stopping him from getting out on the trail. He plans to spend the rest of the week visiting Kansans before continuing on to Arizona and Utah.

“The last 10 weeks, I’ve been traveling quite a bit, but I haven’t really been to the heartland,” he said. “I want to get a sense from people who know the country and what they’re experiencing.”

Schultz began his trip at Johnson County Community College, where a group of about 80 came out for a town hall.

“The extreme ideology of the Republicans and the extreme ideology of the Democrats do not represent the vast majority of Americans who are at the center of this country,” he said. “And we have to unleash them.”

If Schultz wants to see how the voters of Kansas are changing, Johnson County may be the best place to look. Once solidly Republican, the state’s wealthiest county just recently elected a Democratic woman to Congress and helped put another in governor’s seat.

Schultz was a lifelong Democrat until recently, when he started exploring an independent presidential bid. On Tuesday, he attacked the “socialist” policies of the far-left and the lack of decorum brought to the Republican party by President Donald Trump.

One of the major hurdles for Schultz will be name recognition. People know him as leader of one of the world’s most recognizable brands, but he lacks a political or policy record. As evidence that he’ll do right by the American people, Schultz touts his time at Starbucks and his programs to help send employees to college, give them access to healthcare and company stock.

He didn’t touch on the specifics of major issues on Tuesday, but said when it comes to problems with healthcare, immigration and education, the systems are broken and need a bipartisan solution. The best way to get that, he said, is with an independent president.

“There are really good people who are Republican and Democratic but they are unable on almost 100% of the issues to vote their conscience and their heart because of the ideology that is steeped in that party and the threat that has come to every one of them,” he said.

Schultz may be overstating voter interest in an independent alternative.

A CNN exit poll of 18,000 voters in 2018 found that while 76% said the country is becoming more divided, only 10% said they were dissatisfied with both parties.

Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas and expert on elections, said even if large numbers of Americans were dissatisfied with the two-party system, the reality is that few independents ever make it into elected office.

The most common place for an independent to succeed is in state legislatures, Miller said, and even then, those lawmakers tend to be concentrated in New England, the Upper Midwest and Alaska. Kansas has one independent lawmaker, State Sen. John Doll, who left the Republican party last year to be running-mate to independent gubernatorial candidate Greg Orman.

In Kansas, only 17% of voters in the 2018 midterms said they don’t care for the two-party system, according to Miller. Of those voters, the majority went for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

“It’s going to be very hard for him to break through in Kansas and elsewhere because the presidency is traditionally very polarized and right now we’re also in an era where voters are very polarized,” Miller said. “Ticket splitting is at an all-time low and independents aren’t doing well anywhere.”

In Lawrence, Schultz toured Allen Fieldhouse and met with University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self. He’ll make stops in Topeka and Wichita over the next few days.

“I want to be as thoughtful and as disciplined about this process and decision as possible,” he said. “The next president of the United States has to be the right person and I’m doing what is necessary for me to do the due diligence for myself.”